My mom has hosted students from abroad since I was seven years old. I remember having students from Japan, South Korea, China, Germany, England, Brazil, and many other countries stay at our home. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the homestay experience when I studied abroad at the University of Córdoba in Spain with a host family of my own. I was speaking another language and living in an unfamiliar house with family and children that I had to learn to love.
However, I think that my prior exposure, growing up as a host family member, did give me some insight to how I ought to have lived as an exchange student. Here are some tips I have picked up as both a host family member and an exchange student. Hopefully these tips will allow you a better experience at your home away from home.
1. Be willing to change your idea of what may be a “traditional” family and home. You might have grown up in a nuclear family with a mom, dad, and 2.5 children. Be aware that there are lots of single-parent host families and you may be assigned to one. Try your best to be open to the new foods they offer you and the discussions & topics they like to bring up (or not bring up) — some topics are more sensitive than others.
2. Always ask before bringing someone into the home. Homes, at least in Córdoba, are intimate and personal for family and their immediate family friends. In my case, I never had any friends visit me within my home. I always went out to meet them at tapas bars, cafes, or restaurants instead. As for your hot and passionate love lives — ladies and gentlemen — you may have found your sexy, Spanish mamasita or your dreamy Raúl whilst dancing at the discoteca, but if you plan on taking them home, consider asking your family first or reconsidering.
3. When your host family asks you to change something, try to accommodate so that they won’t have to ever ask you again. For me, it was texting my host mom in advance if I couldn’t make it to a meal and also making the habit to turn off the shower water while I was lathering myself with soap. Your family is sheltering you and feeding you. Make life easy for them.
4. Spend time with your host family. Some of you want to go out with your friends, but it would be a shame to go back to your home country and not have memories with your host family. I went to my host brother’s (six-year-old) and sister’s (nine-year-old) swim classes; they were amazing swimmers. I pulled my shirt over my head and pulled my pants up to my stomach and had crazy, impromptu dance parties with my siblings to Enrique Iglesias’ music. My family and I climbed up the tower of the ancient, local mosque together. We went to the movie theaters and watched Disney’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in Spanish.
5. On the other hand, plan to be independent. Don’t hinge your entire social life or your transportation needs upon your host family. For your sake, try to make friends and sightsee on your own; it’s part of the study abroad fun!
6. Be willing to share your culture in some way! Your host family spends a lot of time making sure you are enveloped in their culture. Why not bring some gifts from the States? It can be your favorite team’s jersey, a sweater from your university, American candy, or something even more specific to your own ethnicity-culture. Some families love it when you can prepare simple “American” food for them. (Fun Tip: S’mores are something lots of non-Americans only see in moves.)
You are meant to have a safe, tolerable, and eye-opening experience abroad; study abroad programs will generally screen and interview families to ensure that this, at the very least, is achieved. Of course, there may be some things that you and your family don’t see eye-to-eye on, but just see that as part of the whole cultural experience! In the end, the golden rule of homestay living is try to be considerate. When all is said and done, the best things you can do from your end, as an exchange student, are be aware of how the things you do may have an effect on your family and — in response to that — make your family’s experience, along with yours, a positive one.